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Review: In 'The Invisible Man,' Leigh Whannell & Elisabeth Moss Attack the Patriarchy and Affirm Rich White Tech Bros as the Enemy

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | February 28, 2020 |

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | February 28, 2020 |


People don’t believe women. I don’t know when I actively learned this because I’ve always known this. It’s worse for non-white women, but that I learned—as a non-white woman living every day in this country and on this planet. The patriarchy has many arms to make this happen, from “hysteria” to gaslighting. Your reality sometimes never feels quite real.

It is with this sense of recognition, and omnipresent dread, and escalating horror, that you’ll watch The Invisible Man. Once originally attached to Johnny Depp (which, yikes), the remake from filmmaker Leigh Whannell jettisons much of what has come before in this franchise. H. G. Wells’s original source text has some links here, but not many; the 1933 James Whale film version has even fewer. For fans of either that novel or that film, I can understand any hesitation toward Whannell’s version—he leaves some wiggle room for character motivations, but for the most part, everyone here is operating in absolutes. That narrative certainty is grounded by a fantastic performance from Elisabeth Moss, who between her work here, her whirlwind tour de force in Her Smell, and her excellent supporting role in Us is truly hurtling toward genre queen status. Every widened gaze, every twitchy movement, every shaking hand, everything Moss does comes together to tell you what you need to know about Cecilia Kass. This woman has been through some shit, and what Whannell explores throughout The Invisible Man is how we adapt to fear, and the immense effort it takes to reject it. What would you do to protect yourself? How far would you go?

The Invisible Man begins with a banger of a scene that is now tied with the Iranian drug thriller Just 6.5, my heretofore favorite of the year, in terms of uncontainable viscerality. Inside a gorgeous, barren house set on a cliffside overlooking the ocean, Cecilia (Moss) wakes up at 3:42 a.m. Slowly, she inches out of bed. Slowly, she pours her drugged water down the drain. Slowly, she tiptoes to a walk-in closet that rivals the size of my apartment. Slowly, she retrieves a bag she packed and hid in secret. Slowly, methodically, intentionally, and then suddenly, everything explodes. She bursts out of this house, she sprints down the path, she vaults herself over the high cement wall surrounding the property, she makes her way through a pitch-black forest. All the time, Whannell keeps our perspective at a healthy distance away from Cecilia; we inhabit an uneasy space between being right beside her in spirit and physically behind her in perspective. We watch her, and Cecilia knows she’s being watched. She’s been used to that for a long time.


After her escape, we learn who Cecilia was fleeing from: tech genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen from The Haunting of Hill House, still very hot), a scientist genius and specialist in optics who has spent his entire career finding new and unique ways to collect information about people. The skill made him a multimillionaire, and the power made him a maniac. Cecilia talks to estranged sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) about the five years of increasing abuse she suffered, of the beatings and the belittling, and so they understand why she’s afraid to leave the house. Why she uses nail polish to cover up the camera eye on her laptop. Why, when she learns from Adrian’s lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman, of cult TV show Patriot) that he’s killed himself, she settles into a sort of melancholy relief, and then gleeful joy.

But almost as soon as Cecilia comes back to life while staying with James and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, of A Wrinkle in Time), things start getting weird. A knife goes missing from their kitchen while Cecilia cooks breakfast. As Cecilia and Sydney sleep, someone or something offscreen pulls the covers off their bed. “Adrian will haunt you if you let him. Don’t let him,” James warns, and that’s very reasonable advice if Adrian were actually dead. Cecilia, though, isn’t convinced—and as she increasingly tries to prove that someone is following her, her grip on sanity begins to slip.


“Bitches be crazy” is the sort of casually debilitating sexism that Whannell is poking at in The Invisible Man, and he uses the typical Blumhouse tricks to set up scenes that firmly put us on Cecilia’s side, even as others doubt her. Painfully slow pans across rooms and across hallways clue us into something we can’t see, and train us to look for minute but meaningful variations when we return to a location we’ve already seen once before. When the camera holds on the corner of a room—whether it’s a bedroom or in a police station or in a hospital—your anxiety mirrors Cecilia’s own, the trepidation and doubt, and then eventual rage and anger, that Moss sells so well. Meanwhile, Whannell brings his own frenetic energy to the film’s fight scenes; if you’ve seen his preceding film, the bone-crunching Upgrade, you’ll recognize his particular flair. Moss throws herself into those scenes, too, fighting tooth and nail against an assailant we only intermittently see, bringing to mind Suspiria and that absolutely awful mirror-room attack. And if you can see this film in Dolby, do it; the score from Benjamin Wallfisch, who has previously worked on A Cure for Wellness and Blade Runner 2049, incorporates a futuristic feel with a melding of eerie strings. Similar to horror classics like Psycho, the score drops in and out of the film, reappearing so abruptly that it will frighten you as much as anything else happening onscreen.


There are some fuzzy elements here: Some links between the characters aren’t as clear as they should be, and there is a slightly convoluted feel to a development that pushes forward the film’s final third. What works consistently, though, is the film’s script, and how it makes clear the trauma of domestic abuse, and its various machinations: financial control, physical control, emotional control. When people ask why women stay, this is why; when people doubt why women leave, this is why, too. It’s very much in Whannell’s wheelhouse to reinvigorate the classic horror of The Invisible Man with a two-tiered approach that presents the omnipresent, grand-scale paranoia of our current cultural moment while examining the role of an individual fighting against that, and Moss absolutely nails it. The Invisible Man is utterly thrilling and profoundly cathartic, a bonafide horror that will unsettle you not only because of what it actually shows you but also for everything it implies about the experience of womanhood that you already fear without needing to see.

The Invisible Man opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 28.

Image sources (in order of posting): Universal, Universal, Universal